This week marks a significant milestone in Western North Carolina, a region with fascinating biodiversity and a living history that continues to reside all around us. Many decades ago, now-famous naturalists, botanists, horticulturists, foresters and landscape architects began instilling in us the fragility and importance of the ecological value residing in these mountains. Some came on their own, drawn to the natural lessons to be learned here; others were invited to provide service to those who lived or visited here. Collectively, these ecological pioneers left an interpretive legacy that continues to inform and sustain us today.
One of these, Frederick Law Olmsted, came here near the end of his career, having completed a winding professional path as a farmer, surveyor, world traveler, journalist, wartime health administrator, gold mine manager, park superintendent and finally, as the first landscape architect in the United States. In fact, it was Olmsted who distinguished urban land design from gardening, crafted a method of translating a land design vision to paper, and ultimately, overseeing the paper plan implemented into reality – a collective process now recognized and regulated as the profession of landscape architecture. By incorporating aesthetic, social, economic and environmental breadth into his design criteria, his projects and those of his two sons who succeeded him are still providing service. Landscape architects today continue to employ many of Olmsted’s innovations in design process.
In spite of more than 500 projects completed by Olmsted’s firm from 1857 until his retirement in 1897, an estimated 5,500 additional projects that were in some way designed or influenced by his sons’ Olmsted Brothers firm that closed in 1979, and a resulting legacy that helped define America’s urban spaces, national and state parks, campuses, communities, and, yes, arboreta, there has never been a standing sculptural image created of Olmsted.
On Friday afternoon, April 22, 2016, that will no longer be the case. Due to the generosity of the Olmsted/Olmstead Family Association and of John and Muriel Siddall, Olmsted’s larger-than-life-size figure in bronze will grace the grounds of The North Carolina Arboretum.
The sculpture idea was formed by the Olmsted/Olmstead Family Association during the 1998 dedication ceremony of the Arboretum’s entrance road as Frederick Law Olmsted Way to honor Olmsted’s founding and contributions to the profession of landscape architecture. Fundraising within the Olmsted family yielded the first dedicated funds in support of a sculpture here. Then, in November 2013, the consequential generosity of John and Muriel Siddall made possible a national artist search and the commissioning of a sculpture by Zenos Frudakis, a sculptor of international renown.
The completed sculpture, located in the Arboretum’s Blue Ridge Court, will overlook a physical development designed in the late 20th century, but inspired by Olmsted’s landscape concepts formed well over a century ago and incorporating his four distinct themes – a Grand Promenade that serves as a social gathering space, views into the environment of the Bent Creek Experimental Forest of the Pisgah National Forest, the Quilt and Heritage Gardens reflecting the economic importance of the craft industry, and throughout the Arboretum, the aesthetic blending of built and natural spaces. All of this is accessed from the Blue Ridge Parkway – itself an iconic work of landscape architecture – by means of a favorite Olmstedian technique known as the Approach Road, an intimate entrance route that establishes enclosure and sense of place as part of an orchestrated arrival sequence concluding with a dramatic destination.
In this contemporary setting of The North Carolina Arboretum, the new sculpture celebrates the indelible and valued mark that Olmsted has left on the urban appearance of our nation and its civic landscape spaces, and certainly on the profession of landscape architecture that he founded.
In looking to the future, plan in hand, we at The North Carolina Arboretum pause this week to reflect and pay tribute to the father of American landscape architecture. We are indebted to Frederick Law Olmsted for the intellectual and design discovery that his legacy continues to empower here and across the landscape of the nation.
Olmsted photo credit: Wikipedia